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Critics are pouncing on Harris County’s election fumbles, real and concocted, to fuel legal challenges

In the latest fallout from Election Day woes, a GOP judicial candidate is suing to overturn her loss, citing unspecified data and “2,000 reports” of polling place problems.

A line of voting machines in a gymnasium, with people standing at each

Voters cast ballots at the Metropolitan Multi-Service Center in Houston on Election Day, Nov. 8.

Michael Stravato for The Texas Tribune

Harris County officials have yet to explain the full cause of the ballot paper shortages, long lines, and voting machine problems on Election Day, and experts say the lack of information is fueling a bipartisan surge of criticism — both valid and baseless. At least two losing Republican candidates, citing the problems, have already filed legal challenges to void the Nov. 8 election and order a new one, and lawyers are warning election officials to expect more.

The latest challenge came Wednesday from Erin Lunceford, a former judge and 189th District Court Republican candidate who lost her Harris County race to Democrat Tamika Craft by a 0.26% margin, around 2,000 votes. During a Harris County GOP news conference to announce the election contest, Lunceford’s lawyer, Houston-based Andy Taylor, said he wanted to use the lawsuit to send a message to Harris County election administrator Clifford Tatum.

“Mr. Tatum, your day of reckoning has just started,” said Taylor, who is also the lawyer for the Harris County Republican Party.

Politicians are also piling on. “This is about thousands of real voter irregularities in this county, and  they never should have happened. But they happened with a minimum of absolute gross incompetence or malevolence,” said state Sen. Paul Bettencourt, a Houston Republican who also spoke at the press conference. Bettencourt has filed legislation to add restrictions to voting laws and cited Harris County’s Election Day woes when filing a bill that would allow the secretary of state to appoint law enforcement officers to investigate “potential voting violations.”

As of Friday, Tatum, who was appointed in August to lead the county’s elections department, had yet to publicly release a promised assessment with details specifying the number of polling sites that ran out of paper, opened late, or had issues with voting machines.

Joyce LeBombard, president of League of Women Voters of Texas said that Tatum, in the first few months at his post, is now likely aware of the politics of Harris County and what to expect. She said he’ll have to make efforts to be as communicative and transparent as possible moving forward. 

“I hope that [Tatum] is given the opportunity to be able to do that, and that we don’t see movement in the Legislature to overtake Harris County because of these normal elections problems that can arise in a county of its size,” she said. 

Lunceford’s lawsuit alleges more than 3,000 voters were turned away from 26 polling locations due to ballot paper shortages. The suit says the problems raise questions about the reliability of the election results, though did not immediately provide evidence. 

Cindy Siegel, chair of the Harris County Republican party, said that as of Wednesday the party “accumulated a lot of data” and received “more than 2,000 reports” from voters, election judges, poll watchers and clerks about the problems they saw on Election Day in Harris County.

Siegel called for Tatum’s resignation. “The voters’ confidence has been shaken,” she said.

Taylor told Votebeat Friday, that he is still gathering text messages, emails, and notes from in-person interviews to present as evidence. He said 26 sworn statements from the polling site judges and alternate judges –people tasked with supervising polling sites– will be publicly released and filed next month as evidence to support Lunceford’s suit.

Last week, a losing Republican candidate for the Texas House of Representatives, Mike May, filed the first election contest in the county, a single-page complaint that offered no evidence in support of it. May, who lost to Democrat Jon Rosenthal by more than 6,000 votes, alleged Tatum’s mismanagement and ballot shortages meant voters were unable to cast a ballot. May has asked for donations on social media, suggesting he’ll need $50,000 to $100,000 for legal fees. He did not respond to multiple calls and emails requesting an interview. 

Rosenthal’s Houston-based attorney, Chad Dunn, filed a response Tuesday asking the House to dismiss the election contest as frivolous. If the House, which has jurisdiction, fails to dismiss the contest, it “can expect bare and baseless challenges of this nature to be filed with increasing frequency,” the response says. 

Polling place problems prompt election contests

A court ordered Harris County to extend voting until 8 p.m. on Election Day. A lawsuit by voting rights advocacy groups cited about a dozen locations that opened late and that were closed for some time due to issues with voting machines. Two weeks later, the county’s Republican Party, represented by Taylor, filed a lawsuit that claimed the shortage of ballot paper “disenfranchised” an unspecified number of voters. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott called for an investigation of the elections operation due to potential “malfeasance.” 

Last month, a day before Tatum was set to canvass, or finalize, the election results, Attorney General Ken Paxton filed a lawsuit in an effort to toss more than 2,000 ballots cast during the extra hour of voting on Election Day. Only hours before the state’s canvassing deadline on Nov. 22, the Texas Supreme Court ordered the county to include the ballots in its certified election results. 

Tatum has publicly acknowledged that some polling sites opened late, others had issues with voting machines, and some had paper shortages. He told county leaders his office responded and delivered materials where they were needed. Tatum also said he is in “dire need” of more funding, more staff, and most importantly, sophisticated software — used by several counties of Harris’s size — to help him track issues in real time at polling sites. Without this tool, his staff has been calling every election judge who worked at the more than 700 polling sites in the county to gather information. 

But some county leaders say these bipartisan elections contests would have been filed regardless of whether or not Tatum’s assessment was readily available and regardless of what the assessment concludes.   

“It’s clear their goal in filing these contests is not evaluating the election and figuring out how to improve processes. It’s instead to demonize the administrator, to sow doubt in election results because they lost,” Harris County Attorney Christian Menefee said. “And to throw a Hail Mary in hopes that a judge will undo the votes of more than a million Harris County residents.”

Natalia Contreras is a reporter for Votebeat in partnership with the Texas Tribune. Contact Natalia at ncontreras@votebeat.org.

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